Parenting Teens: Discipline, Love, Rules & Expectations

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One of the difficulties of raising teenage children is achieving the right balance between love and discipline; liberties and limitations; and, independence and responsibility. Too much love and support is smothering and interpersonally intrusive. Insufficient love and support is a form of abandonment. Discipline, if it is excessive and harsh, can become controlling and abusive while a lack of discipline is a type of neglect. Meanwhile, independence and freedom without responsibility can place youth in highly dangerous situations. To complicate things further, the correct balance constantly changes as youth continue to mature throughout their adolescent period.

When parents strike the right balance of love with discipline, liberties with limitations, and independence with responsibility, adolescents feel secure, valued, and loved. This is because adolescents feel secure when they know what is expected of them and have a clear understanding of the rules, boundaries, and limitations; and the consequences for crossing the line. They feel also feel secure knowing they can make mistakes without losing the love and care of their parents. They feel valued when parents set high, but achievable standards for them. Furthermore, adolescence feel loved and valued when their parents express confidence in their abilities to make wise decisions and healthy choices, without allowing them to stray too far from the correct path. The importance of achieving this critical balance between nurture and autonomy cannot be emphasized enough: It will ultimately lead to satisfying and successful experiences in school, work, and relationships. In this section we discuss how parents can achieve this important but delicate balance.


Raising Confident, Resilient Youth

Loving parents would prefer their children never have to endure painful or distressing circumstances; but, the reality is that such experiences are certain and inevitable. Therefore, the next best thing that parents can do for their children is to help them to become resilient. Resilience refers to the ability to "bounce back" or to readily recover from painful, stressful, and difficult experiences. Resilient people possess a repertoire of positive coping responses that enable them to recover (or "bounce back") from challenging or difficult situations, while they simultaneously learn and grow from these experiences. It is these coping responses that enable them to rise above negative experiences so that they are able to overcome adversity and move on with their lives. Thus, resilience is a personal attribute that ensures a reasonable degree of success and life satisfaction.

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One thing parents can do to build resilience is to provide the proper amount of support and guidance. Sometimes it is tempting to think of adolescent children as mini-adults who no longer require the same degree of parental support and direction as they once did when they were younger; but, this would be an erroneous conclusion. In fact, during early and middle adolescence, youth may need even more emotional support, guidance, and discipline than their younger siblings. An insufficient amount of support and guidance may mean that youth fail to become productive members of society and may find themselves struggling with all kinds of problems because they lack the skills needed to cope with such problems: troubling relationships, unemployment, underemployment, legal problems, problems with alcohol and drugs, preventable health concerns, or other similar difficulties. Oftentimes, they simply give up.

Similarly, when parents are overly protective to the point of being smothering, or provide too much direction without letting youth work out some problems on their own, they rob youth of the opportunity to develop and practice independent problem-solving skills. Lacking this personal experience with successfully solving problems, these youth will not develop confidence in their ability to tackle life's difficulties. This type of insecurity makes it difficult for them to feel safe and comfortable living on their own. Furthermore, in order to be successful and to enjoy life, it is often necessary to take small but calculated risks (e.g., asking someone out on a date, asking the boss for a raise). However, overprotected youth who lack confidence in their own abilities may be unwilling to take these small risks for fear they will fail.

So how do parents walk this thin line between too much, and too little, guidance and support? First, let youth practice making small decisions independently and let them experience the consequences of these decisions even when these consequences are unpleasant. Experience is often the best teacher. Second, when youth make poor decisions encourage them to think through how they might do things differently next time, or how the problem could have been prevented. For instance, suppose Raymond says to his parents, "I'm not a baby any more, you don't have to keep telling me, 'It's time to get up!' every morning. I can get up without your help." While Raymond's parents may have some serious doubts about Raymond's ability to get up by himself without being late for school, they may decide it is best to let Raymond make this decision. Later, when Raymond has been late to school too often, and gets kicked out of the marching band as a result, his parents should not rescue him from this consequence. However, his parents can guide and encourage him to develop some solutions to prevent a similar problem from reoccurring in the future. This balance between love and discipline is precarious because each teen is different. Some teens learn best from natural consequences while others can learn from talking things out. Some teens are highly sensitive to their parents' disapproval while others are not. Teens also vary in the rate and speed that they develop self-discipline and good decision-making skills so their needs for discipline, guidance, love and support will vary throughout their teenage years. In the next section we provide some guidelines for parents to help them figure out how to provide direction and boundaries to their adolescents of all ages without interfering too much, or too little.

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